A boom’s repercussions

March 9, 2013
Brian Coppola, supervisors chairman in Robinson Township, believes the perception of bad relationships between local elected officials and gas-drilling companies is overstated.

The natural gas boom extends beyond well sites in Washington and Greene counties and elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania.

Drilling for natural gas or the prospect thereof can be a polarizing process pitting residents against municipal officials, residents against drillers, neighbors against neighbors, drillers against politicians, and pols against other pols.

It is happening face to face, online and at public meetings.

Vitriol between parties has been rampant, especially in this region, and in some instances appears to be accelerating to the point of near-combustibility. Take Range Resources vs. state Rep. Jesse White – and vice-versa.

Brian Coppola, supervisors chairman in Robinson Township, where six drilling companies are operating, downplays this perception.

“I think it’s a misnomer to say things are heated,” he said Wednesday. “We have good relationships with Chevron and MarkWest. Range is a business partner.

“It seems like a few people in particular are taking some hard-line tactics. But generally, we have a really good relationship with the drilling industry.”

Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Range, said media are supplying fuel to this perceived fire. He contends they are more likely to respond – and give more prominence – to people or groups who are wary of drilling or downright opposed to it, than to supporters.

Others, including public officials besides Coppola, say the tenor in the gas and oil industry isn’t that contentious.

Don’t count White, D-Cecil Township, among them.

“I think that maybe for the past year or so, there’s been kind of a cold war mentality,” he said. “Things would happen at a meeting or behind the scenes. Then at some point, the cold war turned hot. That’s where we are now.”

A misfired volley

The Independent Petroleum Association of America launched Energy In Depth in 2009. It’s described on its website, energyindepth.org, as “a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other ‘tight’ reservoirs across the country.”

On March 2, EID posted a blog by Joe Massaro with the headline, “Township leader flies high as residents needing natural gas suffer.” In it, he calls Coppola “an extraordinary (sic) wealthy guy” who “has been delaying natural gas development for local residents while he enjoys a lap of luxury.”

Robinson commissioners rejected requests that Range filed for conditional permits to drill on properties owned by Roger and Susan Kendall, on Foley Road, and by Michelle Parees and Robert Frame, off Midway-Candor Road.

The board voted unanimously against each application at its Feb. 11 meeting, saying Range did not provide sufficient documents.

In an email sent following the meeting, Pitzarella wrote: “We’ve provided all of the necessary information and answered all of the questions posed during the process just as we did two years ago, but it’s been a half of a year and the township continues to delay this process indefinitely.”

Coppola said, “The two we denied are in residential areas. That’s why we need more detailed information. There was nothing we could overlook on those.”

The Energy In Depth blog included an aerial photo of Coppola’s house, on 19 acres in Robinson, and a photo of the private drive leading to his front gate. It also mentions that Coppola has a helicopter and pad there and the fuel he uses emits lead.

That post was removed Thursday morning by Chris Tucker, who has the title “team lead” for EID.

He wrote at 9:45 a.m. Thursday: “The post that previously occupied this space on our blog was removed by me earlier this morning. The item dealt with an ongoing debate in Robinson Twp., Pa. centered on a recent decision by a township supervisor to deny a standard conditional-use permit to a local oil and gas operator, thus preventing local residents (who have been vocal in their support for natural gas exploration) from developing the minerals they own.

“The entry generated a number of responses in the comments section, with several of our visitors expressing concern that the focus of the piece was misplaced: with too little research on why the permit should not have been denied, and too much on the motivations and personal circumstances of the actual township supervisor who denied it. I agree with those comments, and share those concerns. And I apologize for the error.”

Coppola is a contractor, owner of Park West Maintenance and Supply in Findlay Townhip, Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh International Airport. He said Wednesday he not only had seen the EID posting, “about 100 people sent me the link from all over the state. I even got emails from Florida.”

His calm phone demeanor belied his feelings about the posting.

“It does bother me. I grew up very poor. My child was the first in my family to go to college. When I was a kid, I had no concept of college. To have worked my way up to what I have, this bothers me.

“I don’t know if this helps anybody. I’ve heard about all of these groups wanting to work with communities. I don’t know if this is a good way to do this. It’s intimidation, pure and simple.”

Supporting surveys

Pitzarella is a spokesman for an oil and gas exploration company that has a large presence in Western Pennsylvania, and thus is an advocate for drilling. But he is unbiased in his contention that three reputable polls – by Gallup, Quinnipiac University and the University of Pittsburgh – indicate that most of those polled are advocates as well.

“Scientific research shows that the overwhelming majority of residents are in support of drilling, and that even people closest (to the shale) are strong supporters,” he said.

“We’ve been drilling Marcellus Shale wells since 2004, and still an overwhelming number of people say, ‘I want drilling.’ I’m sure there is more consensus on Marcellus Shale drilling than on gun control, unemployment and other hot-button issues.”

There are, of course, environmental concerns about drilling, as there are are with the harvesting of other energy sources. If drilling and related operations are done improperly, the concerns can be valid; if done properly, studies indicate, risks should be minimal.

Accompanying public concerns, in many instances, is a lack of sufficient knowledge. Education and enlightening are among the main reasons that many companies in the gas and oil industry have pledged to reach out to communities.

Pitzarella said Range is doing that.

“We’ve had a booth at the (Pittsburgh) Home & Garden Show all week. We’ve had 400 field tours with thousands of residents, open houses at our buildings. We’ve had roughly 500 presentations explaining what we do.

“Almost every time, people say they are comfortable with what we do.”

‘Determined’ foes

Range Resources has its opponents, though. Mark Drajem, a reporter for Bloomberg Business Week, wrote an article Feb. 19 titled “Texas fracker accused of bully tactics against foes.”

In it, he writes: “Critics say the Fort Worth-based company, which pioneered the use of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, has taken a hard line with residents, local officials and activists. In one case it threatened a former EPA official with legal action; in another it stopped participating in town hearings to review its own applications to drill, because local officials were asking too many questions and taking too long …

“… The company counters that it enjoys a great working relationship with lease holders, residents and officials in the overwhelming majority of the 250 municipalities where it operates, but faces determined opponents in a few.”

Drajem also writes that Pitzarella “said Range faces two intractable foes in Western Pennsylvania: the local state representative, Jesse White, who had pressed Range executives to raise more money for his campaign before souring on the company and its practices; and John Smith, an attorney who represents townships that have had contentious relationships with Range and homeowners who say their water was contaminated.”

White has claimed he is a supporter of natural gas development in Marcellus Shale. He and Range, however, have been at loggerheads for a while, after he initially was a supporter. He recently had posted three anti-Range messages on his Facebook page.

And Coppola isn’t the only one who has had photos of his home placed online. There is a post someone placed on White’s Facebook page with multiple shots of Pitzarella’s home, taken from zillow.com, a real estate website.

Range and Robinson have had issues besides the rejections of the two permits a month ago. Range filed lawsuits against the township Jan. 28, alleging the township was refusing to make decisions on the Kendall and Parees properties.

The company also has sued Cecil over that township’s oil and gas zoning ordinance. Then Monday’s supervisors meeting turned angry.

Range attorney Blaine A. Lucas appeared before the board to discuss a letter Cecil sent to the state Department of Environmental Protection on Jan. 2 about the Worstell Impoundment on Swihart Road. Attorney William R. Miller submitted the letter contending that Range failed to get proper approvals for the original use and construction of the impoundment and did not provide the township with plans for it.

“Cecil Township understands that Range Resources originally constructed the Worstell Impoundment to serve gas wells on two well pads located beside the impoundment, but that Range Resources now desires to expand their use to serve wells located on other property and for general wastewater storage,” the letter reads.

Miller also wrote: “Cecil Township did not issue a permit for the original use, and Range Resources has failed to apply for approval to expand the use.”

Supervisor Tom Casciola said Cecil did not independently contact DEP, but was asked by the agency to express concerns about Range’s intentions for the impoundment.

“Why didn’t you just call and ask us?” Lucas said. “The township has done nothing but stonewall our efforts.”

Lucas later said, “You, as a board, are running amok.”

That was the storm before the calm. Later in the meeting, Supervisors Chairman Michael Debbis proffered a pledge that served as an antivenin to both sides. He said the township wants to have an open dialog with Range and to work with the company.

Lucas said Range prefers that as well.

It was a reminder that, despite the visible vitriol, disparate sides can coexist peacefully in the shale region – and, for the most part, actually do. And that olive branches do grow there.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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